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Bewitched by Sierra Madre

BEING a mountaineer, I have been fascinated with the idea of climbing the Sierra Madre and exploring its vast forests. I wanted to know why only a few dare to set foot on it.

So when the Smart Mountaineering Club (SMC), of which I am a member, was invited to participate in the Palanan Co Sierra Madre Trek last month, I promptly signed up.

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The trek was organized by Darwin Flores, Smart public affairs senior manager, primarily to fulfill the wish of the late botanist Leonard Co to scatter a third of his ashes in the 16-hectare plot study area that he set up in Palanan, Isabela.

The trek would also enable participants to study the biodiversity of the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. Smart supported the trek by providing satellite connectivity.

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We were 18 in all, including Co’s colleagues and friends from the Philippine Native Plants Conservation Society, Wildlife Conservation Society of the Philippines, Conservation International, and the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, and members of the UP Mountaineers, UP Baguio Mountaineers and SMC. We were accompanied by 15 Dumagat guides and porters, and were divided into three teams.

Team A’s role was to clear the trail and to find an appropriate camp site. Team B was in charge of documentation, taking pictures and videotapes and composing content for blogs. Team C’s duties included photo documentation and the collection of plant samples (leaves) for identification.

Others took pictures of wild birds and other species they encountered along the trail.

We crawled under and over huge logs, climbed boulders and battled the strong current in countless river crossings. For almost two hours, we went on an 80-degree climb up the summit, maneuvered our way up the rocky side of a waterfall, slithered down the wet, narrow trail, tripped many times over vines and twigs, and bore scratches and cuts on arms and legs from brushing against rattan plants.

We itched from the bites of niknik (sandflies) and limatik (blood leeches) and endured heavy rains at our first camp. But we also experienced eating freshwater eel caught by our Dumagat guides. We swam like kids in cold, crystal-clear rivers. We listened to the different songs of birds in the wild and heard the loud sound of the cicada (a kind of bug).

We documented two freshwater turtles, a nightjar (nocturnal bird), the different colors of butterflies and dragonflies, which our guides brought to us and later returned to the wild.

A bird enthusiast in the group gave us a glimpse of the smallest raptor, a blue-breasted Kingfisher, Rufuos hornbill and Philippine Bulbul (type of a songbird). I was amazed to learn that some birds imitate the sounds made by other birds.

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The sight of so many pitcher plants, rare orchids and jade vines hanging like chandeliers, countless ferns and trees, and other unknown plants also left most of us bewitched and tongue-tied. It was nature at its best!

The starry, starry night during our final camp day was a fitting finale to our unique and awesome experience.

Seven days is not enough to understand fully the wonders and beauty of the northern Sierra Madre. There are still so many things to discover and see but, although brief, this close encounter with nature and our Dumagat brothers and sisters made me take more seriously my role in the protection of the environment.

The trek has helped raise awareness about this paradise in the Philippines and its need for proper attention and safeguarding, just as the late Leonardo Co had intended.

Now that the world-renowned Filipino botanist has been laid to rest, we hope that more people would continue his work of preserving our environment. Hopefully someday, we can stop referring to the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park as the country’s last great forest and start calling it simply one of the great forests in the world.

Joyce Romaraog, a technical support analyst, is president of the Smart Mountaineering Club. She is active in environment, education, community building and disaster response volunteer programs.

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TAGS: forest, Leonard Co, Mountaineer, nature, Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park, Sierra Madre
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